Achieving Resilience in the Garden

I have written enthusiastically about the book Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West

To review my two recent columns about this book, visit “Designing Naturalistic Landscapes” and “Resilient Plant Communities.”

Regular readers will recall the “essential messages” of this book, as boldly summarized in this column:

  1. Good planting design results from harmonious relationships of plants to place, plants to people, and plants to other plants.
  2. Combine plants in interlocking layers, as they occur in natural plant communities:
  • structural/framework plants (10-15% of the total)
  • seasonal theme plants (25-40%)
  • ground cover plants (50%)
  • filler plants (5-10%)

I wanted to overhaul my own garden right away along the lines recommended by the authors.

After a very brief period of planning the next steps, I realized that putting these ideas in place would involve a good deal of thought and study. I had already written, resilient plant communities “require planning and knowledge of specific plants to put into practice.”

I was not alone in this assessment. The others who have read the book also praised its ideas and observed that they would not be easy to apply. In fact, several reviewers concluded that Rainer and West were not writing for home gardeners but for professional landscapers, especially those with exceptional knowledge of plants.

Thomas Rainer replied: “The book clearly acknowledges the complexity of creating plantings that function more like a naturally occurring community. But it doesn’t look at this complexity with despair, but instead, attempts to systematically describe how to do this in practical steps.”

He does recommend planting the four layers in four steps and provides practical advice about site preparation, but the missing pieces are lists of plants for each of the layers for each of the archetypical landscapes, along with knowledge of how plants look and grow together.

These are not small matters for home gardeners, for landscapers, and almost all garden designers.

Emulating Nature, it turns out, is not a simple matter. But one should not be discouraged.

The aspiring creator of a resilient plant community has access to very useful books. I previously recommended Designing California Native Gardens: The Plant Community Approach to Artful, Ecological Garden, by Glen Keator and Alrie Middlebrook, and Thomas Rainer recommends Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change, by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher (Timber Press, 2016).

Garden Revolution

For the next step, we have Rainer’s tip: “Real design happens in the field. Take time there to get the layout right. Arrange all plants first, then go back and adjust location and spacing.”

I will report overviews of my progress from time to time, without, as they say, “getting into the weeds.”

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